Liza Bell & Contemplative Life Ministries
Liza Bell has been involved in Contemplative Life Ministries at Saint Barnabas for the last 15 years. A central practice of contemplative life is that of centering prayer. Liza explains that this practice is all about learning to be present to the moment. “It’s changed my life, and I’ve watched it change the lives of others.”
To build up personal practice, it is suggested to set aside twenty minutes daily in which to sit quietly, breathing steadily, being present to the moment. As the practice is cultivated, Liza finds that “God is smack-dab in the middle of it.” In this practice, the use of a sacred word can often be helpful: as and when awareness of thoughts emerges, saying a particular sacred word that one has chosen (Liza’s is “peace”) helps to bring awareness gently back to the moment – to gently let those thoughts go. Using this practice, Liza says, helps us to be more in tune with who we are, with an “intent to consent” to the work God is doing within us. “We’re not God, but we’re not other-than-God.”
For those who may doubt that centering prayer is going to work for them – or may feel that they’ve tried and it didn’t work – Liza says that while it’s not a practice that everybody gets on with, she often encounters people who simply have a misunderstanding of what centering prayer actually is. Although it bears certain similarities to meditation, the goal is not to empty one’s mind of thought. Rather, in centering prayer, the intent is to become aware of thoughts as they come, inevitably, into our awareness… then practice letting them go. “By the way,” Liza says, “your brain is not going to shut down! You’re always going to have thoughts arising. But this just means you have a million opportunities for letting go of those thoughts.” Liza connects the centering prayer approach to the words of Jesus: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Liza is well familiar with the “not great things” that life can bring. Two of her grandchildren were born profoundly disabled, with mental development never progressing beyond that of a 5-month-old infant. Liza became the central caregiver for the youngest girl, Anna. As Liza spent days, weeks, and years just holding Anna, with little other activity possible given Anna’s condition, Liza became aware of her own desire to “fix” the situation. She fought the desire to remove the discomfort, the frustrations, the limitations of Anna’s existence. Through it all, Liza noticed, Anna had a palpable calmness about her. Despite being physically frail and extremely limited in communication until she eventually passed away at the age of 5, Anna demonstrated to Liza a calm acceptance of what is: “I am here. I am as I am.”
Gradually, Liza’s yen to fix things faded, replaced by a moment-to-moment acceptance of the present that reflected Anna’s own. Today, Liza is experiencing macular degeneration, meaning that she is gradually losing her eyesight. This, too, she says, has been a profound lesson in acceptance, through which she has been buoyed up by her practice of centering prayer.
A psychotherapist by training, Liza sees abundant similarities between psychotherapy and centering prayer. The practice of centering prayer, she says, has palpable therapeutic benefits – including a positive effect upon the quality of how we respond to one another. When her husband, Pat, began to practice centering prayer, Liza reports that she noticed a fundamental difference in him within weeks: calmer, more attentive, more active in listening. When Liza began her own practice of centering prayer, it was a transformative experience of continually learning to say, “This is all right. God is holding me all the way.” Today, Liza and Pat practice twenty minutes of centering prayer together at least once a day, sitting in a pair of comfortable chairs positioned specifically for that purpose.
If life feels too busy and hectic to consider integrating such a daily practice – if twenty minutes sounds downright impossible – Liza suggests starting by simply taking a breath. Cultivating present-moment awareness even for one moment can have profound effects. Practice having a thought, recognizing that you’re having it, then actively letting it go.
If you’d like company as you practice, consider joining one of the weekly centering prayer groups meeting on Zoom. To dive deeper, periodic silent retreats are offered at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson. You are also invited to try one of the monthly Quiet Days at Saint Barnabas. All are welcome to explore and develop a centering prayer practice as part of our collective contemplative life. -Amber Leima
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